Egypt: The Monastery of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite (The White Monastery)

The Monastery of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite

(The White Monastery)

by Jimmy Dunn

The White Monastery at Sohag is names so for the limestone walls of the surviving church, which in some ways resembles a the pylons of a Pharaonic temple. This monastery, founded actually be the uncle of St. Shenouda, St. Pigol, lies 4 1/2 kilometers south of Sohag, with the Red Monastery very nearby.

White Monastery in Sohag, Upper Egypt

At its peek, after St. Shenouda became the monastery's abbot, there were some 4,000 monks and nuns, and the grounds of the monastery covered some 12,800 acres. Facilities included kitchens, storehouses and monk's cells, the remainder of which can still be seen to the north, west and south of the church. According to ancient documents, during the middle ages there was also a second church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a keep.

After St. Shenouda, the monastery continued to be very active up until around the middle of the eighth century, when without the strong leadership it had enjoyed in it's early period, and under heavy taxation that was imposed about this time in Egypt, it fell into decline. Actually, the taxes of this period put many monasteries out of existence, and it is a tribute to the strength of the While Monastery that it survived at all.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, we know from paintings of the central apse of the church that the monastery hosted Armenian monks. During the 13th century, Abu Salih Al-Armani tells us of a now nonexistent keep of middle age construction, and of an enclosure wall around the monastery. He also speaks of a garden within the walls full of all sorts of trees. Apparently this serves to indicate that monastery's further decline, lacking now the vast acreage outside the monastery that it once enjoyed. We do know that the monastery underwent considerable restoration between 1202 and 1259.

From the 14th century onward, the lack of literary manuscripts cements this advanced state of decline, from which in ancient times, it never recovered. In 1672, we here of visits by Wansleben and again in 1737 by Pococke, both of whom wrongly attributed the founding of the monaster (or at least the surviving church) to St. Helena, Emperor Constantine's monther. In 1798, a French traveler named Denon tells us that he visited the monastery merely a day after its destruction by the Mamlukes.

We know that in the latter part of the 18th century, the southwest corner of the surviving church complex collapsed. This was later repaired under the direction of Muhammad Ali in 1802, who is also credited with the final demise of the Mamluke influence in Egypt. In 1833, Robert Curzon visited the monastery, leaving us a written record of such and in 1893, Fergusson published a plan of the church complex.

By the early 1900s there was apparently considerable interest in the Monastery. Significant studies of the monument were made by such visitors as W. de Bock in 1901, C.R. Peers in 1904, and in 1907 by W.M.F. Petrie, at which time more restoration took place to the facility. Additional studies of the monastery took place in 1912 by S. Clarke and by Monneret de Villard in 1925.


What survives of the original monastery is only the Basilica style church complex. It had six entrances, with three in the north, south and west walls, and the other three south of the west wall, east of the south wall and east of the north wall. As mentioned earlier, outwardly the church much resembles an ancient Egyptian Temple.

Church complex of the original White Monastery in Sohag, Egypt

The body of the church is now an open courtyard and contains a nave flanked by two isles. To realize the grand style of this 5th century basilica, one needs only to observe the dimension of this open courtyard. It measures 172 feet long by 76 feet wide, of which the nave occupies half that width.

Enclosed within a solid red brick wall built during the middle ages, the current church occupies what was once only the choir and sanctuary area. The original sanctuary was built with three apses and is one step higher than the nave in the open court. The altar is located within the central, or eastern apses. There is also a new, solid wood iconstasis with small icons on the top register. The central apses is divided into thirds with the center section dedicated to St. Shenouda the Archimandrite, the southern one to the Holy Virgin and the northern section to St. George.

The original three apses are grand, each containing two registers of columns separated by a decorative firese and surmounted by architraves. there is a wonderful simidome above the registers, with paintings. In the central apse, there is a painting of the Pantokrator and the four evengelists. The dormition of the blessed virgin is in the northern apse, and in the southern a representation of the resurrection with the two Mary's and two angels.

There are several annexes along the east and south walls, with the most significant being the great hall alongside the south wall. it has a chamber at each of its east and west ends. The west chamber contains a well.

The church is build using various materials, but the original construction used white limeston set in mortar with no bonding. The source of this material was probably from nearby ancient Egyptian temples. the original nave columns are made of marble or granite and the paving of the nave is of limestone or granite slaps. Originally there was a wood roof, but that is now of burnt brick.

Comment: It is painful to see the great Monastery of St. Shenouda reduced to such a small size. For it must have been a sight to behold in its prime. However, the church complex that remains was most likely the jewel of the monastery. There is enough remaining in it to portray how great it was. The honorable Sommers Clarke described it best as "the noblest church of which we have any remains in Egypt, the chief monument of the Christians..."


There was once a great library located in the monastery. It may have even been the greatest Coptic library in Egypt, but today it is scattered about the world. Codices were dismembered and and ended up in different libraries or museums. We do know that parts of the library have found their way to the following institutions:

  • Berlin, Deutshce Staatsbibliothek

  • Cairo, Coptic Museum

  • Cairo, Egyptian Museum

  • Cairo, Institute Francais d'Archeologie Orientale

  • Cambridge, University Library

  • Florence, Biblioteca Laurentiana

  • Leiden, Rijks-Museum

  • Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Public Library

  • London, British Library

  • London, Eton College

  • Louvain, Bibliotheque de l'Universite

  • Manchester, John Rylands University Library

  • Michigan, University Library

  • Moscow, Pushkin Museum

  • Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale

  • New York, Pierpont Morgan Library

  • Oxford, Bodleian Library

  • Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

  • Paris Musee de Louvre

  • Strasbourge, Bibliotheque de l'Universite

  • Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica

  • Venice, Biblioteca Naniana

  • Vienna, Osterreiche Nationalbibliothek

Apparently, after some centuries of abandonment, it would appear that limited monastic life has returned to this monastery and the Coptic Church of Egypt is working to increase the number of monks in the area.

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Last Updated: June 21st, 2011